Finding middle ground in the PTMP debate

The Penang government has no choice but to opt for land reclamation and land swaps.

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Published by The Malaysian Insight, The Malaysian Reserve & New Straits Times, image from The Malaysian Insight.

TAKING the middle ground in the current controversy or debate over the multi-modal Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) could just be the solution.

The debate over the PTMP has been going back and forth between proponents and opponents in what appears to be a contest of policy ideas and political philosophy. 

To rehash: the Penang government, due to budgetary and fiscal constraints, has no choice but to opt for land reclamation and land swaps to fund the overhaul and massive upgrading of the transportation system.

It has to be remembered that when the venerable Lee Kuan Yew visited the island in 2009, he commented to then Penang chief minister (and now finance minister) Lim Guan Eng that he was not impressed with the state’s transport infrastructure.

Civil society groups, however, are up in arms over what they perceive to be gross deviation from the original Halcrow Plan (eponymously named after the UK-based consultancy firm). How accurate this is remains controversial. 

Nonetheless, it is my humble view that the groups should be able to reach a sensible and reasonable compromise with the state government in the bid to increase the public ridership ratio. Or, at least, achieving a 40:60 ratio of public-private ridership envisaged by the PTMP. 

The components of the PTMP can be modified or adapted to meet the concerns of the groups. 

Accordingly, the form of the proposed compromise could be as follows – in simple terms.

The construction of a 6.5km undersea tunnel was already in the original Halcrow Plan. But construction was pushed forward to 2030 as the earliest timeframe.

The PTMP situates the tunnel route connecting Gurney Drive with Bagan Ajam, and has been earmarked for construction in 2023. However, the first phase of the works was scheduled to have already begun in October 2019.

As a compromise, the undersea tunnel could be built to accommodate the different tiers of users via a multi-layer segmentation corresponding to private and public vehicles, as well as pedestrians alongside cyclists and personal mobility devices (PMDs), such as electronic scooters. 

At the same time, for much shorter routes to connect the tunnel to feeder bus stops and taxi/e-hailing stands on both the island and mainland side, travelators could be built for the convenience of pedestrians. 

For pedestrians and PMDs, separate lanes could be designed, with the former in the form of underground trams or an autonomous rail system (ART). This arrangement could complement and supplement the proposed 4.8km-long cable car or “sky cab” system currently under way.

As an aside, to protect against possible tsunamis, the outer concrete or layer of the undersea tunnel should be reinforced and padded by very thick walls and steel fibre reinforced shotcrete to improve crack resistance.

To be seismic-resistant, the reinforced curved concrete segments should alternate with water-proof, rubber-based “flexible joints”, which are located between the lining.

On the three-paired road scheduled for completion in 2025, perhaps two should be dedicated to the bus rapid transit (BRT) system. 

Maybe Package Two, namely from Air Itam to the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway (LCE), would be a good candidate as it is strategically in proximity with George Town, not to mention along areas where many of low-income B40 folk reside, as represented by the Dhoby Ghaut-MacCallum Street low-cost flats built by the Penang Development Corp (PDC) on reclaimed land, no less.

On the other hand, Package One, i.e. the Tg Tokong-Tg Bungah paired road, could perhaps be scrapped altogether. In its place should be a mini coastal bridge (crooked bridge!) serving as the bypass and integrated with an elevated inland structure comprising perhaps only 20% in total. 

The force of the civil society bodies’ objections, however, are ultimately aimed at the Pan-Island Link (PIL 1), which constitutes the “fulcrum” and hub by which the PTMP revolves around, and both topographically and geographically constituting the “central spine” of the island’s transportation strategy for the next decade and beyond.

Now that 70% of the PIL 1 alignment will comprise a series of deep underground tunnels created by the “drill and blast” method involving “metre-by-metre” controlled chemical blasting, environmental concerns of hillslope tree-cutting should be allayed.

Most likely, the drill and blast method will utilise the variable density tunnel boring machine technology successfully used for the Storm Water Management and Road Transport System (SMART), Pahang-Selangor Raw Water Transfer Tunnel and the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit Sg Buloh-Kajang (SBK) Line.

Again, in the spirit of accommodation, perhaps one of the lanes (both sides) could be used solely for the BRT system. 

At the same time, however, PIL 1 should be based on the concept of the Central Forest Spine of Malaysia (most prominently covering the forest complexes of Banjaran Titiwangsa-Banjaran Bintang-Banjaran Nakawan, Taman Negara-Banjaran Timur) in terms of wildlife corridors for monkeys, lemurs, macaques, squirrels, cat-like palm civets, etc. 

A series of eco-links or bridges could be created (emulating the 62m-long nature overpass by Mandai Lake Road of the Singapore’s Bukit Timah Expressway) that allows for safe and secure passage for animals living in the Penang Hill range or forest catchment areas.

And, arguments against the George Town-Bayan Lepas Island A LRT Line lie mainly on the basis of cost. 

But, as pointed out by Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, a tram system would not be suitable for flood-prone Penang. Trams are run by electronic systems installed at the base of the tracks that will be exposed to short-circuiting during floods.

Lack of space prevents a discussion on the Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project. Suffice to say, a compromise should be explored. 

As has been highlighted by others, rehabilitation of the underwater ecosystem – impacted by land reclamation – in utilising artificial reef balls has been successful and is widely promoted. 

In conclusion, I believe a compromise is not only possible but necessary within the framework of the PTMP. 

Why? 

Ironically, for the sake of a more realistic method of financing by the state or, in short, costs.

Jason Loh Seong Wei is Head of Social, Law and Human Rights at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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